Dr. Christy van Beek

On the future of smallholder farming, soil fertility and plant nutrition over the next 12 years.

As part of the IFA2030 fertilizer industry strategic review exercise, IFA has conducted a series of interviews with leading plant nutrition academics and industry experts about how they see the future for farming and fertilizers.

IFA: Which innovations do you think may have the biggest impact on smallholder farming by 2030?
Dr. Christy Van Beek
: By 2030 smallholder farmers will be using apps, like the one from SoilCares, that will tell them exactly what fertilizer to apply where, when and how. The app will use real time soil data, weather information, crop growth monitoring and disease prevalence and link the farmer directly to input suppliers. The apps will also possibly integrate their recommendations with locally available sources of nutrients, like on-farm compost heaps, with the advice based on complementing on-farm nutrient recycling options with fertilizers. Input suppliers will then use micro-blending to mix the required products on the spot.

IFA: How do you see climate change affecting plant nutrition and the fertilizer industry over the next 12 years?
Dr. Christy Van Beek
: The polarization between nutrient accumulation in consuming (urban) areas and nutrient depletion in producing (rural) areas will further increase due to urbanization and globalization. This is a paradoxical situation which is already present in degraded soils in rural areas and organic waste problems in urban areas, such as smells, toxicities and GHG emissions. At the same time, climate change and resource scarcity will put the production system under pressure. Soil degradation has to be halted and in the next 12 years I predict (and hope to see) targeted interventions to reverse the ongoing trend of soil fertility decline. These interventions will integrate addressing physical degradation processes like erosion and landslides with chemical degradation (loss of soil fertility and pollution), as well as improving biological soil health.

IFA: What do you see as some of the main trends in plant nutrition over the next decade?
Dr. Christy Van Beek
: Restoring degraded soils has a positive impact on carbon sequestration and food production. I foresee more organo-mineral products which combine organic nutrients with mineral fertilizers. This apparent win-win of getting rid of organic urban wastes and producing high quality crop fertilizers has, however, some challenges. The quality of organic urban wastes is still too low and variable. Major efforts are needed to produce clean (without pollutants and with low salt levels), high quality (with relatively high nutrient contents) and stable compost to be used safely and effectively in agriculture.

IFA: Why do you think a forward looking strategic exercise like IFA2030 is important for the fertilizer industry?
Dr. Christy Van Beek
: The fertilizer industry is under pressure. On the one hand, food production has to increase, mainly through improved crop nutrition. On the other hand, environmental concerns are growing and there is increasing sentiment against mineral fertilizers. I foresee a process towards more balanced fertilization and dynamic recommendations. Notably, fertilizer recovery rates are still far too low. Nutrients are being wasted, and lost to the environment, because not all nutrients are available at the time the crop needs them. In the future I think fertilizer recommendations will not only look at crop requirements (agronomic advice), but also at human or livestock requirements and health. Pro-active thinking and planning, like IFA2030, can help anticipate these demands from the market and society.

About Dr. Christy Van Beek

Dr. Christy van Beek received her PhD in 2002 from Wageningen University on "Nutrient Losses from Grasslands on Peat Soils". Since then she has developed into a passionate scientist on Food Security and Soil Fertility at Wageningen University and Research Centre. Dr. van Beek has published more than 10 scientific articles on this topic and was the Scientific Coordinator of the CASCAPE project in Ethiopia. She was also the Project Manager and initiator of the Fertile Grounds Initiative. In November 2016 she joined SoilCares and became director of the SoilCares Foundation where she brings her expertise and experiences to work for smallholder farmers all over the world.